Sri Lanka’s State education system has long been under the heel of politicians. At different times this excessive politicisation has become evident to the public through misuse of resources, forcing teachers to kneel in punishment or making hundreds of students stand in the scorching sun to create a record for the world’s longest saree. Repeated abuse of power has proven that politicians need to be schooled in better behavior but it would seem the lesson is not being learnt.
The latest incident is from the Colombo Zonal Education office, which has issued a letter to the principals of Colombo schools to invite Parliamentarians and Provincial Council members for school functions and give “due respect” during the ceremonies. Perhaps the most derogatory aspect of the missive was that point that it is the duty of public servants to give due deference to politicians. Attached with the letter was a list of Provincial Council (PC) members, who represented Colombo Zonal Education Development Structural Committee, ostensibly as a reference to principals.
This letter is both shocking and disappointing because it shows the absolute subservience that has crept into the State education system. For decades politicians have steadily made inroads into the education structure, undermining its independence and accountability and firmly positioning themselves in places of absolute authority. Politicians control the flow of funds, decide how they should be used, dish out promotions and control teachers. Essentially they use the schools under their political purview as yet another tool to barter more power.
What is taught in schools, how students are looked after and what resources are given to them are all under the power of politicians, who themselves are usually minimally educated and have no interest in progressive policies either to expand their own knowledge or those of students under their care. No dignity or independence is allowed principals or teachers and the result has been a steady decline in standards, evidenced by a rapidly-growing tuition industry and private schools. Genuine education to teach children to understand and adjust to a changing world and imbibe skills to allow them to grow both intellectually and emotionally is all but lost.
It is absolutely appalling that orders to give even more prominence to politicians are given with no repercussions to the officials who issue them. In a system that is disempowered under complete political control the only voice of dissent are teacher unions but they are at best a stop gap measure with limited capacity to institute long term, meaningful change and reform. Even in this instance the only protest has been recorded by unions who have pointed out that the Zonal Structural Committees mentioned in the letter give politicians access points to control the system even more. It is these same politicians who have been essentially ordered to be invited for school functions, wasting additional public funds.
This system serves the politicians and gives little incentive to other officials from the Education Minister downwards to engage in genuine reform of State schools. The status quo also provides immunity, of a kind, to the prominent schools of Colombo but leaves little hope to the rest of the schools tasked with educating and shaping Sri Lanka’s future.